Car reviews - Isuzu - MU-X - LS-U
Great country and dirt-road ride comfort, excellent engine and transmission combo, off-road toughness, doesn’t handle like a boat, great visibility, character and charm, addition of trailer sway control and USB charging points, improved servicing schedule
Room for improvement
Dated tech and cabin compared with segment’s best, poor touchscreen, steering can be hard work, small fuel tank
Popularity of Isuzu’s MU-X well deserved as this rough diamond has surprising depth
17 Oct 2018
ISUZU Ute Australia’s winning streak continues, and it looks almost certain to clock up a full decade of double-digit sales growth in 2018.
The seven-seat MU-X is by far Australia’s top-selling ute-based SUV, comfortably outstripping the Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, Ford Everest, Toyota Fortuner and Holden Trailblazer. In fact, it’s now the nation’s second-most popular large off-road wagon after the Toyota Prado.
We spent a week living with the mid-spec LS-U variant to try and establish why so many Aussies are opting for the MU-X over what is some very strong competition.
On test here is the MU-X LS-U 4x4 with a six-speed automatic transmission, which costs $52,500 plus on-roads (the LS-U 4x4 is the only MU-X variant to offer a six-speed manual, for $2100 less). An auto-only 4x2 version is also available for $45,200 plus on-roads.
The LS-U sits between the entry LS-M ($50,200 plus on-roads in equivalent 4x4 auto guise) and LS-T ($56,200) that was made a permanent factory flagship this year rather than the limited edition with dealer-fit upgrades it once was.
If these prices seem a bit rich compared with, say, the highly tempting Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, bear in mind that Isuzu is notoriously prone to discounting. At the time of writing, the company was advertising the MU-X LS-T for $52,990 driveaway with two years free servicing thrown in, or the same LS-U spec tested here for $48,990 driveaway with the same servicing offer.
Standard kit on the MU-X range includes LED headlights and daytime running lights, steel underbody skid plate, sump guard and transfer case shield, cabin air filter, leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel, reversing camera, rear parking sensors, cruise control, air-conditioning, and touchscreen multimedia with DVD player, USB and Bluetooth connectivity plus eight speakers and USB charging points for front and rear passengers.
The LS-U ups the touchscreen size from 7.0 to 8.0 inches while adding satellite navigation, upgrades from manual air-con with dash vents to climate control with air vents for both rear seating rows, gains front foglights and aluminium side steps and replaces the LS-M’s gunmetal grille with a chrome item to go with the chrome doorhandles and chrome electric-folding mirrors. A shark fin antenna supplants the LS-M’s bee-sting item and alloy wheel size grows from 16 to 18 inches. There’s also rear privacy glass.
On top of this the LS-T gains leather upholstery, a six-way electric driver’s seat adjustment, keyless entry with push-button start, a 10-inch ceiling-mounted entertainment screen for rear passengers, roof rails, a tailgate spoiler and tailpipe trim.
Safety wise, all variants now have trailer sway control along with the usual electronic stability and traction control systems, hill start assist and hill descent control.
Isuzu offers a broad range of dealer-fit accessories and our MU-X has the Tour Mate kit comprising of an alloy bull bar, bonnet protector, tow pack and tinted window weather shields. This pack includes carpet mats, which had been replaced with rubber mats on our example.
Separately the bull bar costs $2962.30, the tow kit $1087.90 plus wiring, the carpet mats $234.30 (rubber ones are $229.90), the weather shields $220 and the bonnet protector $187.
In addition, our MU-X had a snorkel ($965), LED spotlights ($902), an electronic trailer brake controller ($688.60) and roof bars ($470.80).
If you haven’t sat in a late-model MU-X recently, the current crop’s improved cabin ambience and perceived quality have taken a significant step up courtesy of more upmarket plastic textures and plenty of stitched leather-like dash coverings, door trims and armrest padding. The cloth seat upholstery of our MU-X was pretty pleasant, too, while feeling respectably hardwearing.
From behind the wheel of a new MU-X, these simple and subtle changes go a long way and make this a much more pleasant place to spend time.
The overall design remains, with large expanses of mid-grey plastic and a slight basic cheapness about it. An optimist would call it honest and unpretentious, which fits with the general nature of this vehicle.
A huge and polarisingly chunky climate control knob remains a talking point for passengers – one toddler we took for a ride absolutely loved its toy-like looks – but at least nobody would accuse this system of being fiddly. You could get in your MU-X at the top of a mountain with hands numb from scraping snow and ice off the windscreen and easily operate the heater.
In hot conditions, we’re pleased to report the MU-X air-con will send an arctic blast your way, LandCruiser style. Ceiling vents distribute ventilation to both rear rows too, with a fan speed control in the ceiling above the middle bench. Our only gripe with this otherwise effective solution is that the downward airflow can disturb rear-facing infant passengers.
Everyone else is pretty comfy and despite a lack of steering wheel reach adjustment, with the driver’s seat cranked to its highest position and a comfortable distance from the pedals, this tall tester found the driving position pretty good.
Storage remains excellent. Upper and lower gloveboxes, slide-out cupholders at each end of the dashboard, a mini glovebox by the driver’s knee, large door bins that can hold big drinks bottles, a sunglasses case, a phone slot beneath the dash and a big bin beneath the big, cushiony central armrest. Just the poor design and location of the centre console cupholders disappoints.
Moving to the second row, there’s plenty of legroom for six-footers to sit behind similarly tall front occupants. This 60:40 split bench reclines but does not slide, has three sets of Isofix points for easy child seat installation – one more than most cars on the market – and is just about broad enough for adults to sit three abreast. A fold-down central armrest reveals two more cupholders, there are fabric map pockets and the door bins are similarly big back there too.
In the third row, we found enough kneeroom for another six-foot passenger, but headroom was limited. Each occupant here has a cupholder and a storage tray too.
To overcome the fact that the third-row seats do not fold flat into the floor, Isuzu has installed a kind of underfloor storage compartment behind them to provide a flat load area when the rear row is not in use. It’s handy for storing wet or dirty items and is removable by undoing a pair of thumbscrews in its base. But the whole setup also raises the load height and makes items prone to falling out when you open the tailgate, while reducing the already limited luggage space when all the seats are up.
Isuzu has added more USB charging points to the MU-X cabin, which will be applauded by families and adventurers alike. They’re the more powerful 2.1-amp variety, too, so more devices will charge and most phones will charge more quickly. A trio of 12V cigar lighter style outlets is also provided.
Visibility is excellent and although the reversing camera display is not exactly high resolution and it lacks multiple viewing angles or animated guidance lines, we found it one of the easiest and most natural systems to judge a vehicle’s position with.
Unfortunately, the multimedia touchscreen is a letdown in other areas. Sure, it is functional enough, reasonably easy to use and far better integrated with the dashboard than previous Isuzu efforts, but it suffers from dated and pixelated graphics plus a lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. Worst of all is how much it dims when the headlights are on, which is fine at night but renders the image almost invisible when driving through fog or in heavy rain. We also found it very hard to see while wearing polarised sunglasses.
Our MU-X was kitted out for adventure with a bull bar, spotlights, snorkel, trailer hitch and roof rack. As a result it suffered a bit more wind noise than usual.
Otherwise, the MU-X is an unexpectedly quiet car. Sure, the diesel engine gets a little raucous near its upshift point and is never completely fades to silence at a cruise but road noise is incredibly well insulated and once up to speed, there’s hardly an unpleasant sound that isn’t easily drowned out by the excellent audio system and its innovative ceiling-mounted speakers.
Engine and transmission
Peak power output from Isuzu’s trusty 3.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel is 130kW at 3600rpm, with 430Nm of torque between 2000 and 2200rpm and at least 380Nm available all the way from 1700rpm to 3500rpm.
The last part of this is key to this engine’s appeal. It never feels turbocharged, pulling the MU-X along with a beautifully predictable and linear character. Responsiveness is great, too, in that there is no delay in acceleration following the driver’s inputs.
In addition to general driving ease and pleasure, the predictable, linear response of this engine makes the MU-X extra confidence inspiring off-road. Especially when the going gets soft.
At the same time, it does not feel overtly grunty like, for example, a Holden Trailblazer, but in general there is a relaxed and loping character about this drivetrain that we very quickly came to admire.
We’ve previously compared this Isuzu unit to the diesel V8 of a Toyota LandCruiser in that it never feels as though it is working all that hard and that the manufacturer has left a lot of potential power and torque on the table in the name of longevity.
The LS-U tested here was certainly well run-in, with 9000km on the clock when we took custody of it. The previous three Isuzus through our garage all arrived with just a few hundred clicks under their tyres and the improvement in transmission behaviour was astonishing on this more travelled example.
Shifts were entirely intuitive, kickdown response was almost instantaneous and we could even leave the transmission in drive when tackling a twisty road, comfortable in the knowledge it would not get caught in the wrong ratio at the wrong time.
It’s a sharp contrast to the transmission lethargy and hesitance we endured on Isuzus with fewer kilometres on the clock. Take this into account on your dealership test drive.
We’d only knock the selector across to the manual gate for off-roading and perhaps heavy towing, bearing in mind that responses to manual inputs are not the quickest. In general though, Isuzus are not at their best when hurried – you’re unlikely to experience the MU-X at its best when flooring the throttle for example.
On-the-fly shifts from two- to four-wheel-drive are quick and seamless, which is useful for those dirt roads that have occasional stretches of bitumen. Successfully selecting low range is a bit more hit-and-miss, though.
Isuzu introduced hill descent control as part of a range-wide update a year or so ago, but honestly engine braking in low range is incredible, even in our test vehicle with automatic transmission. If anything, the electronic system adds confidence down low-traction inclines because you can select a higher gear to avoid the wheels locking up from engine braking alone.
Back on bitumen, the MU-X engine is unmistakably diesel-y in sound and character but this model is no longer the agricultural experience it once was. During moderate driving, some vibration begins just before the automatic up-shifts at around 2800rpm, and above this, things get a bit noisy and harsh under load.
Getting close to a manufacturer’s claimed fuel usage is unusual enough, but our MU-X achieved that with the bull bar, snorkel, trailer hitch and roof rack adding weight and wind resistance. There seems to be some truth in customer anecdotes that Isuzus remain pretty consistent in terms of fuel consumption regardless of towing or payload.
It’s just as well because the MU-X has a pretty small 65-litre fuel tank. For remote area travel, a long-range tank or jerry can holders would be required.
Ride and handling
With the exception of the Toyota Prado, large off-road SUVs don’t tend to handle like boats these days.
The MU-X is a pretty good example in its segment. It exhibits minimal wallow and only under hard braking does it really pitch – and even then it recovers quickly.
These qualities make it easy to drive around town – aided by the excellent visibility mentioned earlier and compact 11.6-metre turning circle – and things only get better as speeds rise. If anything, the main fly in the Isuzu’s ointment here is its heavy and rather slow steering, but we started getting used to that as our week with the MU-X wore on.
Save for a bit of chassis shudder typical of the separate-chassis construction this ute-based wagon is based on, ride quality is generally excellent.
You’re still aware via some pitter-patter when surfaces are broken and worn, and on long stretches of poor quality road the level of steering vibration and tug can get a little tiring, in the same way engine vibration is regularly felt through the helm.
Aside from much of the interior and some sounds from under the bonnet, the steering is the only agricultural thing about this vehicle. Despite this, it’s accurate enough to position the MU-X perfectly on quick, twisty roads or when threading it through traffic.
With higher speed limits, the MU-X is a great road-trip partner as it settles into a comfortable and relaxing stride, soaking up country and motorway kilometres and their surface imperfections with ease. We can see why grey nomads like them.
It’s no problem to maintain pace on twistier roads either, at least in the dry conditions of our test. There’s a sense of sophistication about the way the MU-X deals with big hits, remaining settled and not being easily knocked off course.
The MU-X does not lean excessively in bends, nor does it prematurely understeer and grip levels from the Bridgestone Dueler highway-biased tyres fitted to our car were impressive.
Swapping bitumen for gravel, where a lot of top-heavy ute-based SUVs can feel a bit skittish, the MU-X remained impressively planted, predictable and confident on these loose surfaces. Like most of its offroad-oriented rivals, a lot of the Isuzu’s bitumen-road character flaws evaporated as soon as its tyres hit the dirt, but the difference was not as stark as some.
We enjoyed this consistency, which extended to the feelsome and progressive brake pedal that delivered excellent deceleration on various surfaces.
On tougher terrain, the MU-X maintained excellent levels of traction, even on road tyres, with its incredible wheel travel helping this to no end. At the same time, occupants are almost completely isolated from what is going on beneath, which is testament to this vehicle’s towering off-road potential.
There are no diff locks, but the single-mode traction control system seemed incredibly adept whether we were on mud, gravel or rippled bitumen and the MU-X would climb a slippery slope that some rivals have refused to without at least a rear diff lock engaged. Its interventions are subtle rather than abrupt, too, which is exactly what you want when the stakes are high in off-road situations.
Safety and servicing
Back in 2013, the MU-X obtained a full five ANCAP star rating. Among its standard safety features are dual front, front-side and curtain airbags plus an electronic stability control system with hill start and descent control and now trailer sway control to go with the anti-lock brakes, rear parking sensors and a reversing camera.
For this update, Isuzu upped its token 50,000km capped-price servicing program to 75,000km over its five-year course, reflecting the newly extended servicing intervals that are now 15,000km apart rather than 10,000km, but still every 12 months.
But with the five capped-price services averaging at $418 a pop, the MU-X is not the cheapest vehicle to keep on the road.
Hopping from car to car as we do in this profession, the MU-X was initially quite confrontingly agricultural. We’d just stepped out of Mazda’s excellent CX-8, which has nowhere near the off-road ability or towing capacity of the Isuzu, yet is still a spacious seven-seat diesel SUV.
And here’s the crux: The MU-X is excellent at its intended purpose, so if you regularly head off the beaten track, or tow a big boat or caravan – or any combination of the above – the Isuzu comes highly recommended. At the same time, it is admirably liveable round town or for short country road and motorway trips, while also being excellent on long hauls.
But if to you the great outdoors is a full-featured caravan park in the centre of a tourist hotspot then something like the Mazda is a much better bet.
The MU-X rapidly grew on us during our time with it. Its foibles and failings are fewer every time Isuzu updates it, and it has a lovable character that is hard to quantify in a review.
In many ways a Mitsubishi Pajero Sport or Holden Trailblazer is superior, but neither is as practical as the Isuzu and neither wear their toughness on their sleeve so well.
So perhaps that’s why so many Aussies are buying Isuzus. They are a perfect fit for our national character. That and the word-of-mouth publicity must get from owners who have fallen deeply in love.
There is a tiny link at the bottom of the Isuzu website that suggests we’re right on this. It’s called Buddy Bonus Plus, and it rewards owners for recommending the brand to a friend.
Holden Trailblazer LTZ ($52,490 plus on-road costs)
Holden in Australia did a lot to transform the agricultural Brazilian-developed, Thai-built Colorado 7 into what is now an excellent off-road SUV and went much further than development partner Isuzu did with the MU-X. Like Isuzu, Holden discounts regularly and deeply. We prefer the Isuzu’s driveline but the Holden has a much nicer cabin with better multimedia, but at the expense of storage.
Mitsubishi Pajero Sport Exceed ($53,650 plus on-road costs)
A strong performer and great value for money with the unique advantage of selectable all-wheel-drive for driving on wet bitumen or constantly changing surfaces. There is a lot to like about the Pajero Sport unless you intend to install child seats, as the system they have devised for this is borderline unusable.
Ford Everest Ambiente 4WD seven-seat ($54,190 plus on-road costs)
An undeserved also-ran in the 4x4 wagon sales race, possibly due to its price position being closer to Prado than Pajero Sport. In many ways it is another league to both in terms of technology and driver appeal, but you are determined to buy an Everest, we’d find the extra cash and go for the better-specified and overall better-value Trend variant.
Toyota Fortuner GXL automatic ($49,490 plus on-road costs)
For a long time we wondered if Toyota Australia would delete the HiLux-based Fortuner due to slow sales. Things are looking up since prices were dropped and equipment levels upped. But for a Toyota, it’s an almost invisible model on the roads, which is highly unusual for a brand used to dominating the segments in which it competes. And all the models listed above are better to drive.
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